Thoughts of May Day celebrations often conjure images of village communities dancing around a maypole – a tradition which is believed to have started in medieval Britain. However, as we prepare to celebrate the annual event on May 7 the way the Victorians would have done, learn more about this age-old celebration and the traditions that come with it.
- Festival of Fertility
The May Day celebration is believed to date back to the Roman era, with festivals worldwide taking place to promote fertility and new life. In medieval times the celebrations would regularly centre round a village green where dancing would ensue. A May King and Queen who would be crowned and they would be dressed in green to symbolise fertility.
- German Traditions
Historically, Germans also believed May Day to be a time to give thanks and to celebrate fertility. The night before – or May Eve as it was commonly known – young, unmarried men would cut down a fir tree and remove its branches before decorating it and erecting it in the village square. The tree had to remain under the watchful eye of a guard overnight, for fear of it being stolen by men from a nearby village. If the guard fell asleep and the tree was stolen, there would be a ransom to be paid – often a good meal and a barrel of beer.
- The Puritans
The church was relatively accepting of May Day celebrations until the 17th century when the Puritans became angry about the debauchery which often accompanied the singing and dancing, and the suspected Pagan origins of the occasion. In 1644, Parliament banned maypoles, and it wasn’t until Charles II came to the throne some years later that the tradition was restored.
- A Victorian Celebration
May Day is often synonymous with the Victorian era as it was at this time that the celebration really saw its revival. The Victorians however, were formal people and many of the pagan traditions and links to fertility were believed to be too risqué, so the maypole became a seasonal game for children instead. In addition to the maypole, Victorian’s would mark the beginning of the summer season with family games, dancing and music – much like Sudeley Castle’s May Day event on Monday 7 May.
- Working 9 ‘til 5
In 19th century America, it wasn’t uncommon for workers to spend up to 16 hours each day in unsafe conditions, with death and injury a common occurrence in many workplaces. In the 1800s however, it was declared that the working day would be set at 8 hours – without the agreement from many employers. Socialist organisations proclaimed strikes and demonstrations in support of the new policy and on May 1 1866, workers across the United States walked out of their jobs for what was the first International Workers Day, which is still celebrated around the world on May Day.
- The Great Exhibition
On 1 May, 1851, Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition – also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition – which took place in Hyde Park. The celebration of culture and industry was created by Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and Henry Cole, a civil servant recognised as being the person behind the concept of the greeting card. The event was attended by many of the famous people of the time, including Charles Darwin, Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll. The World Fair is still a celebrated occasion to this day, making May 1 1851 one of the most important May Days in history.
- ‘Bringing in the May’
There are lots of traditions and superstitions associated with May Day, particularly during the Victorian era – from waking up before dawn and going outside to wash your face in the dew, from gathering flowers and creating garlands for friends to wear. This tradition was known as ‘Bringing in the May’ and often, people would give their garlands or ‘May baskets’ of flowers to someone who needed cheering up.